But then the recession kicked in and the teen mags started to have trouble finding dates to the prom. Teen went the way of leg-warmers and Wham!, while Seventeen's sluggish performance led to a front-office purge in July that saw vice president/publisher Ellen Abramowitz and editor-in-chief Sabrina Weill replaced by, respectively, Redbook vice president/publisher Jayne Jamison and CosmoGirl editor-in-chief Atoosa Rubenstein. As for the other titles, only CosmoGirl thrived during the down years. It grew 20% in pages in 2002, and remains on pace for an 11% gain in 2003; Teen People and YM are more or less flat in terms of ad pages this year.
In light of the category shakeup, the emergence of ELLEgirl as one of the year's success stories surprised many onlookers. Even now, one or two pundits snipe that the magazine's marketing model - it bills itself as "the international style guide for girls who dare to be different" - will have only a limited appeal. On the other hand, its quick growth has made somewhat of a seer out of Magazine Publishers of America president Nina Link. Speaking about the teen-mag category in May 2001, she said that it would likely trend toward niche publications: "Teens and news, teens and sports, teens and hobbies."
ELLEgirl is proud to be niche. "We're not mass and we'll never be mass," says vice president and publisher Deborah Burns. "The more mass you are, the more you have to dilute the message to please the largest number of people. That may work in other magazine categories, but we believe that smaller is better." At the same time, of course, she stresses that ELLEgirl is the largest teen fashion/beauty magazine in the world.
Since its debut in August 2001, ELLEgirl has slowly grown its frequency (quarterly in 2002, bimonthly in 2003, eight times per year in 2004) while at the same time creeping its rate base upward (it rises to 500,000 effective February 2004). Burns, who ascended to her post late last month when Jeanne Schwenk announced she'd be leaving the magazine at the end of the year (she's getting married and moving to Chicago), claims that this growth plan sits quite well with advertisers.
"We reach the influencers, which is a compelling story for them," Burns explains. "[Influencers] don't just influence their peers and each other, but also their cool youth-seeking parents in a way that no other generation before has done." It's an enormous market: according to Teenage Research Unlimited, teens spent $170 billion in 2002, and that figure doesn't account for Little Janey pressing dad to splurge on the sedan rather than the coupe.
Obviously, ELLEgirl's most important ad category is fashion and beauty, with companies like L'Oréal leading the way. Despite favorable ad page and revenue trends (the mag is up, respectively, 103% and 150% over 2002 levels, though 2003's two extra issues skew the year-to-year comparison), Burns is determined to drive ELLEgirl's non-endemic advertising upward, with consumer electronics as a logical primary target. She promises that such expansion will be handled carefully, taking a subtle swipe at the competition in the process: "The [companies] we pursue are going to be the ones teens respond to and buy. Some of the advertising we see in Teen Vogue may not be as relevant for this market. The reader of that magazine would seem to be different than the reader of ELLEgirl just by virtue of the advertising in the magazine."
As for her readers, Burns is quite impressed by their level of marketing and cultural sophistication. "They've been marketed to since they were born," she notes. As a result, Burns says, ELLEgirl shoots higher than many of its peers, attempting to avoid the my-mother's-a-drunk-and-I-had-to-raise-my-brother-and-sister drivel that used to plague the genre.
"We try to respect the reader and inspire rather than dictate," she explains. "If you're going to be mass, you have to prey on their insecurities - 'am I pretty enough?,' 'do I need a boyfriend?' We like to think we're above that."